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What Is Trauma Bonding? Part 1

By: Danielle Bertini, LPC

Leaving an abusive relationship usually isn’t as easy as simply walking out the door. Aside from the logistics of having to find a new place to live, supporting yourself, and sometimes children being involved, you might also feel tied to your partner and feel unable to break away.

This emotional attachment, which is known as a trauma bond, develops out of a repeated cycle of abuse, devaluation, and positive reinforcement (Raypole, 2020). This trauma of abuse can create powerful feelings that you struggle to understand, especially when the abuse alternates with kindness and intimacy. Many abusive relationships often begin with a shower of affection and assurances of love.

In fact, when the abuse begins, it might take you by surprise. And afterward, your partner might apologize, say they are going to change, or insist that “I was just angry.” And these attempts to manipulate often succeed, since you remember the beginning of your relationship where things were positive and believe that they can be that person again. 

Signs of a traumatic bond

  • A cyclical nature

Trauma bonds rely on intermittent reinforcement, or in other words, a cycle of abuse. It’s usually easier to leave a situation that is always bad, or one where the abusive person never offers any sort of kindness. If you never believe someone will change, you probably won’t stick around. However, in abusive relationships, the partner will occasionally treat you well. They might bring gifts, call you their soulmate, take you out, and so on. These gestures can be confusing and disarming. Eventually, the love will overshadow the fear of further abuse. And as you slowly regain trust, you might ignore or suppress the memories of their past abusive behavior, and the cycle begins again (Raypole, 2020).  

  • A power imbalance

Another big component to trauma bonds is an underlying imbalance of power. What does this look like? You might feel as if they control you to the point where you have no idea how to resist or break free. Even if you leave the relationship, you still might have a hard time breaking the bond without professional help. You might feel incomplete or lost without them, eventually leading you to return to the relationship. This can happen simply because the abusive cycle is familiar to you and you don’t know how to live without it yet (Raypole, 2020). 

  • Other signs
  • You feel unhappy in the relationship (maybe not even liking your partner anymore), but you still feel unable to end things. 
  • You feel physically and emotionally distressed when you do try to leave. 
  • They promise to change but make no effort to do so when you say you want to leave.
  • You focus on the “good” days, using them as proof that your partner cares.
  • You make excuses and defend their behavior when others show concern.
  • You continue to trust them and hope to change them.
  • You protect them by keeping their abusive behavior a secret.  

Unsure about if any of these signs relate to your relationship? Try this test:

  • Ask yourself whether you’d encourage a loved one to leave a similar relationship. Answer that honestly. If you answer yes, but still feel powerless and unable to leave the relationship, that’s usually a strong sign of trauma bonding (Raypole, 2020). 

Breaking the bond

People who experience abuse in childhood can often feel drawn to similar relationships in adulthood, because the brain already recognizes the highs and lows of the cycle, making it feel familiar. A history of trauma can make it somewhat harder to break trauma bonds, however you can learn to stop this cycle (Raypole, 2020). Here are some tips that I will explore more in my next blog post.

  • Know what you’re dealing with
    • Keep a journal
    • Consider the relationship from another perspective 
    • Talk to loved ones
  • Avoid self-blame
  • Cut off contact completely 
  • Get professional help 

If you find yourself wondering if you are in a trauma bonded relationship, you may find it helpful to talk with one of our Chicago therapists at Symmetry Counseling. You can contact Symmetry today by calling 312-578-9990 to get matched with one of our licensed counselors. 

References

Raypole, C. (2020, November 24). Trauma Bonding: What It Is and How to Cope. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/trauma-bonding#breaking-them. 

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